Go Ahead, Let Your Kids Watch a Little Bit of Television

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Oct. 12 2011 7:26 PM

Go Ahead, a Little TV Won’t Hurt Him

Why doctors’ prohibitions on screen time for toddlers don’t make sense.

How bad are screens for young kids?
How bad are screens for young kids?

Photograph by Lynne Carpenter/Hemera.

At my 1-year-old son Khalil’s doctor visit last month, our pediatrician told us to stop letting him watch TV. Also, no more iPhone, iPad, or computers. Like all babies, Khalil goes gaga for any sort of screen. The sight of an electronic device quiets him instantly, and if you hand him the gadget, it will reliably captivate him for 10 minutes or longer, far more time than he spends with any other kind of toy.

Ever since he was born, I’ve taken advantage of this effect judiciously but regularly, usually to get out of a jam. In his earliest days, I’d lay him on the couch in the morning and watch TV while he drifted off to sleep. When he got older, I’d give him my phone to calm him down in the car or at the supermarket. When he was about 6 months old, I began lobbying my wife to let him have an old laptop as a toy. (I was rebuffed.) And just before he turned 1 year old, I discovered that TV was an ideal way to distract him while feeding him dinner. He’s always been an insufferably picky eater—he’ll kick and scream and spit out much of the food we try to push into his mouth. But if I sit his high chair in front of the TV, his resistance melts: He’ll accept whatever nuggets I offer and will barely even fuss when it’s something self-evidently nasty. (Seriously, pureed salmon?)

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Of course, I knew this was wrong. Baby books and child-rearing classes describe TV as a vice on the order of smoking or keeping firearms in the house. Our pediatrician told us that on-screen images move too quickly for kids’ brains, and could thus cause long-term developmental problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics cites the same fear in its strong warning against television for children younger than 2 years old. There aren’t any firm guidelines about non-TV screens like cell phones and computers, but the child-rearing establishment generally prefers old-school activities—reading, singing, playing with baby toys—to electronic devices. American parents, though, flagrantly ignore this advice. A 2003 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 68 percent of children under the age of 2 watch some kind of “screen media” in a typical day—and not a little of it, either. An average baby spends 2 hours a day (about one-sixth of his waking hours) watching a screen, more time than he spends reading or being read to.

I have no intention of plopping the baby in front of the TV for hours on end. My kid spends, at most, 30 minutes a day with a screen, and we’ve cut down his screen time even further since our doctor’s prohibition. At the same time, I’m skeptical of the blanket rule against screens. Sometimes they can’t be avoided, and letting the baby watch or play with a screen can be immensely helpful. The other night I wanted to watch the Republican presidential debate—would it have ruined my son to have let him play in the living room while the TV was on? (I think he would have agreed with Herman Cain’s tax plan.) Or what about when I give my kid the iPad to play with while I take a shower—is that really so bad?

No, it isn’t. After digging into several studies, I found that there’s little to support a zero-tolerance policy on screen time. First, the prohibition against television for babies is based on shaky evidence. While some studies show television is bad for kids under 2, others present a murkier picture. The evidence against phones, tablets, and PCs is far slimmer. As far as I can tell, there’s no research showing that letting your baby play a game on your phone for a short while will harm him in any way.

After looking at these studies and talking to some of the researchers, I’m going to relax about screens. Too much TV is bad for your child—but some TV, and some time with other screens, is nothing to worry about.

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